I was intrigued by Bill Dembski’s January 12 article, “Is James Shapiro a Design Theorist?” Allow me to respond to four of his comments about my arguments.
For proponents of intelligent design, James Shapiro’s constant dancing in the DMZ between Darwin and design can be frustrating. On the one hand, Shapiro is as dismissive of Darwinism as any ID proponent. On the other, he constantly gives public notice that he is not on the side of ID. And yet, methinks he protests too much.
My response: What is wrong with “dancing in the DMZ” between intelligent design (as articulated by Michael Behe and others) and neo-Darwinism? Are these two positions the only alternatives? I doubt it. That is why my 1997 article in Boston Review on evolution debates was called “A Third Way.” What Dembski calls the “DMZ” (i.e. a zone free of futile conflict) is the place where the real evolutionary science is taking place. I am proud to be there, and I see that an increasing number of people are joining me when they realize that natural genetic engineering, horizontal DNA transfer, interspecific hybridization, genome doubling and symbiogenesis provide solutions to problems recognized to be intractable under the limitations of conventional evolutionary thinking.
Where do the fundamental biological structures that make natural genetic engineering possible come from in the first place? Shapiro punted on this question back then and continues to punt to this day.
My response: On p. 128 of my book, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century, I wrote: “We have little solid science on the origin of life, in large part because there is virtually no physical record, but also because we still have gaps in our understanding of what constitute the fundamental principles of life.” Dembski and I both object to the just-so stories in conventional evolutionary theory. So why is it “punting” to avoid dealing with a subject before science is ready to address it? Discussions of the origins of life, of cells or of the first natural genetic engineering systems are premature and would only be just-so stories concocted without a real empirical foundation. There is already more than enough work to do in understanding how evolution occurs in living organisms as we know them. One day, we will be able to address these more primordial questions, but science is clearly not there yet. I prefer to remain on solid ground.
So Shapiro admits that the basic structures required for life are unexplained within his framework, and yet intelligent design is off the table. But why should it be off the table? In the last quote above, he interprets ID as requiring constant supernatural interventions. But ID is hardly limited in that way, a point he tacitly admits in the quote before that: “the ID argument is greatly undermined if it has to invoke supernatural intervention for the origin of each modified adaptive structure.” Note the conditional.
ID does not have to invoke supernatural interventions for every modified adaptive structure. Indeed, ID does not have to invoke supernatural interventions at all. ID only requires that intelligence acted in the formation of biological systems. How that intelligence acted — the precise timing and mode of implementation — is left wide open.
My response: These statements are confusing. Is Dembski saying that he abandons the supernatural as a component of ID? If so, then we can start a real scientific dialogue about the possible natures of intelligence, teleology and design in biology and how to investigate them both theoretically and experimentally. However, if he does not want to abandon the supernatural (as Michael Behe has repeatedly told me he does not) and if he wishes always to have recourse to a literal Deus ex Machina, then we cannot have a serious scientific discussion. Doing that requires respecting the naturalistic limits of science. I think it would be a very positive development for ID proponents to give up on all theological crutches and engage in a strictly naturalistic inquiry, independent of whatever their beliefs in final causes may be. Is Bill Dembski willing to do that?
Shapiro’s natural genetic engineering is a design theory — organisms are intelligent and do their own designing. But the structures they need to do their own engineering are themselves devastatingly complicated. How did these arise? Indeed, why should it be a stretch to think that these structures are themselves the product of design? But since they are presupposed by living systems (all cells do natural genetic engineering according to Shapiro), they must derive from a non-biological source.
My response: I don’t follow the logic of Dembski’s argument here. All we know is that natural genetic engineering is ubiquitous in living cells today. Like cells themselves, when and how NGE originated is unknown. Does Dembski have any empirical basis for asserting “they must derive from a non-biological source”? If so, I would appreciate learning what it is.